Penn & Teller    PCC articles by Penn Jillette        Reprinted with permission.

"I Spent an Interesting Evening Recently with a Grain of Salt"

by Penn Jillette
The title of this article was written by Mark V. Shaney. Mark was a member of a UseNet News group called, a users group chock full of dating tips, lonely heart chatter, frank discussions of sexual problems and high tech missionary gospel about the sins of premarital smut-typing. Mr Shaney was a little goofy but he was always there. He chimed in with poetic opinions on romantic empathy: "As I've commented before, really relating to someone involves standing next to impossible." And he had a great Groucho Marx sense of humor: "One morning I shot an elephant in my arms and kissed him. So it was too small for a pill? Well, it was too small for a while." And his idea of a good closing was: "Oh, sorry. Nevermind. I am afraid of it becoming another island in a nice suit." _-_-_-_-Mark

Who is Mark V. Shaney? Some people on the Net thought he was smart and sensitive, some thought he was on drugs, many had him pegged as just another nut. But they never guessed that Mark V. Shaney was lines of code written by rob and brucee running on a Bell Labs computer. Mark Shaney program read all the messages in the group and spit messages back into the Net. The human didn't catch the pesky little binary corespondent because of all the real nuts in this users group who were misdirecting -real honest to goodness damaged flesh and blood neural-nets spewing crazy flames all the time. And what if - "I spent an interesting evening recently with a grain of salt" was signed "Bob Dylan?" No one thought old Bobby was a program when he wrote - "He screams back you're a cow, give me some milk or else go home."

Wouldn't you like to write a program that could read a thousand words of something and spew out lovable nonsense in the same style? Your own little desktop Bret Easton Ellis, that sucks up the culture of your choice and spits it back at you? Don't let the Murray Hill address scare you, now that rob and brucee have done the hard work of thinking it up, even you and I can understand how Mark V. Shaney works and with a little work you and I can write our own (but let's hope to hell we all have something better to do with our lives - what is on the Weather Channel tonight?)

Here's the trick: English is just lots of words (are you with me so far?) - we can also think of it as lots of pairs of words and lots of triples of words. Thus the first sentence of the above paragraph has the triples: "Wouldn't you like" "you like to" and "like to write"

(So far we have learned that English in triplets sounds like MoTown lyrics.) Mr Shaney takes the input text and measures how many times each triple occurs - How many times does "you like to" occur in our sample - let's say twice. And how many times does "you like macrame" (for example) occur? Let's say once. All you got to do to generate output text is have Shaney print a pair of words and then choose, according to the probability of the input text, what the next word should be. So after it prints "you like " it will print the word "to" 2/3rds of the time and the word "macrame" 1/3rd of the time at random. Now, let's say, it prints "macrame". Now the current pair becomes "like macrame" (you see? this IS nonsense) - Shaney looks to see what word could follow that pair and he's off and running.

Mark makes it look like sentences by attaching the punctuation, which on the net include that hateful ":)" (which means "just kidding" on the net and is used by people who would dot their "i"s with little circles and should have their eyes dotted with Dran-o). So, to Mark "Uma" "Uma." "Uma?" and "Uma?!" (I still use the interrobang, and why the hell shouldn't I?!) are all different words and thus different choices.

Write your own program and you'll have someone just like you to write to.

"I hope that there are sour apples in every bushel." - Mark Shaney